Dad's quiet lessons

Author: Dan Murphy ’09

Father and son
I don’t remember the last time I hugged my father. I don’t remember the last time I told him that I loved him. He’s not a particularly talkative man.

It was one of those bittersweet, breezy nights at the end of August. The kind of night when scents of bitter citronella and sweet barbecue linger on the back corners of your tongue. The kind of night when it feels good to dig a sweatshirt out of a bottom drawer and lie in the damp grass.

But on this night there was no time for lying in the grass. Tomorrow morning the alarm would ring at 5:30 a.m. I would climb into the passenger seat of the truck, and my old man would take the first shift. It’s a 14-hour trip from Hartford to South Bend, so we would both have plenty of shifts. Tonight we had to pack.

The truck is a black Ford Ranger with a few scratches behind the driver’s door. We like to leave a little mud splashed in the tire wells. She’s pretty small as far as trucks go, but just manly enough that we’re proud behind the wheel.

My dad tossed the rope over to me on the opposite side of the truck. “Just tie her off. That should do it.” We had finished the Tetris-style task of jamming everything I owned into the Ranger’s 8-foot bed. The rope was to hold down the tarp and keep 21 years of stuff from flying away on the highway. We used a double half-hitch knot to tie it off because it would hold the tension on I-90’s bumpy roads and it was easy to undo. It was quick and simple. It was strong and secure.

Then it was time for the emotional stuff. I had left home plenty of times before, but this was a little different. This was senior year of college; this might be the last time ever. So I hugged my sister goodbye and I hugged my mother. I hugged my dog and my friends and my friends’ mothers. Then I went to sleep, hugging a pillow.

Five-thirty came early, as I would imagine it does every morning. We took one last look to admire our packing job, and then I left home. As I expected, the ride was quiet. We let AM sports radio do the talking for us. The crackling of poor reception filled the silence.

An hour or two went by and we were almost through the Berkshires. I took over at a gas station and settled in to the driver’s seat. I battled the gravity tugging at my eyelids and tried to keep it under 75; the old man wasn’t much of a speeder.

“Hey, keeping your eyes open over there?”

“Yeah Dad, I’m fine.”

“If you need to stop just let me know.”

“Alright, I’m good. I’ll just crack the window.”

Rev. Whoosh. Crackle.

For some reason I hoped we would have a breakthrough. I wanted to talk about graduating and getting jobs and growing up. I wanted to hear stories about the first time he hit a home run or the first time he fell in love. I wanted to tell some stories of my own. I hoped we would count the milestones as we passed the mile markers. I wanted to talk all about life. But really, what is there to say?

Memory lane

Before too long, I got lost in my own thoughts. It’s easy to do when you are on the road. I drifted into childhood memories of other car trips we had taken; sometimes I drifted into the other lane.

There was the time we went to Disney World. Mom, Dad, my three brothers, my sister and I all filed in to the family car and headed south. The car was a Chevy Suburban — the old kind. We had an SUV before SUVs were stylish. It was two-toned, grayish blue and navy blue, and it smelled like baseball cleats and McDonald’s wrappers.

We loaded the big cargo area with suitcases and pillows, juice boxes and baggies of Cheez-Its. The Game Boy and a pack of Double-A batteries. Somewhere in Virginia, I tried to fall asleep. The rest of my siblings were snoring with their faces pressed against window glass, but the middle seat wasn’t cutting it. I crawled in to the back and sprawled out on top of the bags. I was 8 years old, there was plenty of room back there.

When we crossed the border from North Carolina to South Carolina my dad decided he had had enough. We pulled off the highway and found a motel. We all piled out — well, everyone except for me. “Where’s Danny?” Blank stares.

I’m sure my mom was the first to panic. Where could he be? Wasn’t he sitting next to you? Did we leave him at the rest stop? Did he get abducted?

She ran to find a pay phone and my dad started pulling out the luggage. He unpacked a couple of duffle bags and a big suitcase. And there I was, sound asleep. I had slipped through the cracks and was resting peacefully among the luggage. The next morning I wasn’t allowed to take off my seat belt.

Toeing the line

Somewhere in Ohio the gas light came on. We refilled, switched seats and I pulled back on to memory lane.

There was the time after my Little League game. At 12 years old there was nothing more important than Little League baseball. My team, the Orioles, had won back-to-back championships, and we looked poised to capture the trifecta. The team called my dad Coach Murphy, they called me Bigmouth.

The worst moment of my Little League career came in a late-season game that year. I was at the plate with runners on the corners. We were down by a run with two outs. With a 2-2 count, the pitcher bounced one across the plate. Well, maybe it didn’t bounce, but it definitely wasn’t a strike. The ump disagreed. I hurled my bat at the ground. The helmet went flying a few steps later and hit the chain link fence.

My dad gave me the keys, and I trudged back to the car as he collected the equipment. It was a 1989 blue Buick Century, a hand-me-down from his dad. The speedometer topped out at 85 mph. But I doubt the engine could handle that. It was a common car, but most people who owned them couldn’t see over the dashboard. On any given Sunday, you will find at least three of them in the church parking lot.

Still fuming, I stabbed at the keyhole a few times with the key before it hit home. I didn’t notice the gouges I was leaving around the door handle. I finally hit my spot and yanked it as hard as I could. The head of the key turned easily. The long part, now wedged in the lock, did not. I looked at the half of a key in my hand and that’s when I noticed the scratched paint as well. I turned to see my dad — bucket of balls in one hand, bat bag in the other— and my head dropped like a broken elevator. I stared at my shoelaces. “It broke. Sorry.”

He pulled me back to the diamond as we waited for a ride home. We marched right up to skewed chalk along the first baseline. He took a few deep breaths, and we stood there for what seemed like hours in that familiar silence. Finally, he turned to me and told me he knew why I was upset. He said that competitiveness was a great thing, but it had to be channeled. He kicked the chalk and pointed to the field. “On this side of lines, it’s okay. But you have to leave it there.” I just nodded.

Seeking freedom

And then there was the time that I stole the car.

I was 16 years old and had given my dad the nickname Chubbs. I was filled with what the romantics would call teen spirit. Chubbs called it hormones. I was in the fourth and final month of my learner’s permit, only three weeks away from a license and absolute freedom. But I couldn’t wait.

It was a little past 2 in the morning when I got the itch. I needed to get on the road. I needed to feel like I was my own man, to speed a little bit without someone telling me to take it easy. I needed to feel the wind in my hair and the rumble on the floorboards and all those other things I had heard about in the movies. I just needed to drive.

I walked down the hallway to make sure everyone was sound asleep. Then the tough part, I had to open the garage door without anyone hearing. It usually sounded like the apocalypse, so I lifted it just enough to squeeze under. I threw the old blue Buick in neutral and hung one foot out the open door to get a push start. I couldn’t risk much noise and our driveway was a steep downhill anyways. At the bottom I fired her up, checked my rearview and took off.

Once on the road I could make all the noise I wanted. I revved the engine. I blasted the music and howled as I turned the steering wheel into a drum set. I cruised until I was satisfied, then I snuck back into the house.

I was already lying in bed when the first light switch flicked on. The footsteps on the floor sounded like a telltale heart. I heard doors open and close and I pulled the sheets over my head. I heard whispers in the hallway. It was that damned garage door. My mom, the peacekeeper, knocked on the door. “Dan, did you take the car?” I thought about denying it, pretending to be asleep, but the jig was up. I shuffled downstairs where I knew he would be waiting.

He just stared at me for a while. There was that silence again. Then he asked the most unanswerable question any teenager has ever heard, “What were you thinking?”

I wished he would just scream at me or throw something at a window, lose his cool a little bit. Chubbs rarely lost his cool. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.” He shook his head and told me to go to bed. The next morning I got grounded for a month. But we laugh about it now.

Back to campus

As we hit the Indiana border the sun was starting to sink in front of us. I looked over at my dad who was lost in thoughts of his own. I wanted to ask about them, but I didn’t.

“Whatta you think, about an hour and a half left?”

He peeked at the odometer. “Yeah, maybe two.”

“You wanna get some dinner?”

“Sure, we’ll hit the next rest stop.”

Maybe he was replaying our stories in his mind too. Maybe even the same ones. Maybe he was thinking about what he wanted for dinner.

Finally, we pulled up to my off-campus house. It wasn’t Buckingham Palace, but it was my castle. I honked at my roommates on the porch and killed the engine. They met me at the foot of the steps and lined up for bear hugs. A few neighbors were nearby, and they got hugs as well. We emptied the truck and my dad went to his hotel for the night.

The next morning I drove him to the airport. His flight back to Connecticut left at 10:30. When we arrived, I hopped out of the car to say goodbye. There had been a hundred goodbyes in the past week and this was the last one. I walked around the now empty truck bed and turned the corner. We stood for an awkward moment a foot away from one another. Then we shook hands.

I felt a smile brewing deep inside of me. I tried to choke it down, but I failed. It burst on to my face, pushed by a sharp blast of air that sounded like a laugh. The moment was bittersweet. It was a goodbye and at the same time it was a “good job.” Twenty-one years of my life was packed into that handshake. It was quick and simple. It was strong and secure.

As he turned to walk away, I caught a glimpse of it in his eye. It was everything I had ever needed. The spark started in a much deeper place, the same place as my smile, but it shined through his eyes instead of his mouth. It was all the stories and reassurances, all the life lessons and hugs any child could ever want. It was there all along.

They say good writing shows the readers, rather than telling them. My dad is the greatest author I know. He never told me that he would find me if I was lost. He never told me how to handle success or deal with failure. He never told me about accountability, or how to dance across that thin line that separates rules to follow and rules to break. He showed me every day.

I wanted to chase him down to tell him I saw it. I wanted to tell him that I understood everything he had done for me and I appreciated the way he did it. I wanted to say thank you, but I didn’t. I decided I would try to show him. I hope that he can see it. I hope that it’s somewhere in my eye or my smile. I hope that he knows.

I can’t remember the last time we hugged. I can’t remember the last time we said “I love you.” We never really had to.

Dan Murphy, who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, was a sportswriter for The Observer.